He’s still running through Milton in his neon green jacket that stands out against the grays and browns of a delayed spring. He’s still getting his hands dirty in the yards of his tree care clients. He’s still smiling: A big, hallmark smile that’s defined him for years.
Change isn’t always visible, like how the miles don’t come as easy, and the memories are harder to keep and the words are bit more elusive. But some things are different now, and Maxwell Curtiss knows it.
The day of July 19, 2017 had gone like so many others. Curtiss stopped to chat with a friend’s dad after finishing work locally. It was a warm, summer evening, and the sun would soon start to dip below the mountains as he set off again on his bicycle, a familiar task amid training for another triathlon.
Just before 8:30 p.m., Curtiss, 26, was hit by a driver at the intersection of Route 7 and Lake Road. He was rushed to the hospital and listed in critical condition with a fractured skull and broken hand. He remained in a coma for 10 days.
Curtiss doesn’t remember anything about the accident, though he remembers waking up and feeling dazed but happy to see people — an attitude that withstood the trials to come.
He could hardly walk, eat or drink. Breathing tubes agitated his vocal cords, causing him to temporarily lose his voice. The trauma to his brain left him with a short-term memory loss, and he struggled to find the name of everyone who descended on the hospital in the coming weeks.
In late July, Curtiss was accepted into the rehab program at the University of Vermont’s Fanny Allen campus, where he would stay until his body could function. That’s when his competitive spirit took over.
He approached the speech and physical therapy sessions as if training for a long race, exerting as much effort as he possibly could. Gradually, his speech and motor functions improved. His memory, too — though he’s continued the new habit of taking notes.
“That motivation and drive, just like in running, was with me,” Curtiss said. And like so many other times, he reached the finish line ahead of schedule.
A devout Christian, Curtiss refers to his recovery as a miracle and credits his faith with keeping him positive throughout his life. Still, there were days — three or four, he estimates — when anger seeped in. But his friends and family regularly lifted his spirits. Some sent messages or dropped off cards or meals or treats. Some regularly called the house to check in.
“It really touches my heart and just thinking about it even now – it chokes me up,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that all this support was coming in, and how much they care. I couldn’t believe it.”
The first few weeks of recovery kept running far from his mind. He needed to be able to work again and function normally — or as normally as possible.
Eventually he was cleared to run in areas without any traffic. Still, that meant only a few places, and unable to drive, he didn’t want anyone to feel pressured to cart him around. So he outlined a half-mile route around his house where he slowly built up stamina and relearned his form. He ran 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there, timing himself as the days dragged on.
First came the 8-minute mile, a respectable pace for any casual runner. He shaved 30 seconds in two weeks. Even that was still a minute slower than his time at the 2016 Quebec City marathon, where he finished sixth overall, besting over 1,000 runners, back when he’d run up to 70 miles a week to train.
But the mileage and the timing didn’t — and still don’t — matter like they used to. Not like the feeling of the sun or the breeze on a warm fall day. Not like the freedom of the open road.
“I was just happy to be alive,” he said.
Curtiss froze when he saw the small gathering in Burlington last month.
It had been a month since he sent in his application to the Vermont City Marathon, which sought inspiring individuals to run alongside famed American runner Meb Keflezighi.
Keflezighi, an Olympic medalist who has won the Boston and New York City marathons, immigrated from now-Ethiopia in 1986, five years after his father fled the country for fear of political persecution. His journey has inspired countless runners, and in May, four Vermonters would join him.
In the monthlong waiting period, Curtiss hadn’t heard a thing. He even thought about contacting the marathon to say it could pick someone else. Brent Towne, a former coach and friend who was in on the surprise, gently convinced him otherwise.
They met up at OnTrack, a fitness center where Curtiss learned a new running stride before his accident, and ascended the stairs. Two posters waited for them. One showed Keflezighi, arms wide after winning a race and read, “Run With Meb.”
“No way,” Curtiss said, his eyes large. He shook his head and grinned at Towne. He hugged a family friend. He was interviewed for television. He called it his “golden ticket.”
Curtiss will spend the coming weeks training for the five-plus miles he’s expected to cover next month. Though it’s his first official race since the accident, he says he’s mostly focused on enjoying himself.
“I’m just going to live that moment as much as possible and just soak it all in,” he said.
But behind Curtiss’ boundless optimism is a part of him that’s withstood the frustration of losing so much and pushed through the pain of earning it back. It’s the same piece that fueled each run before and since his crash and now, needs to see how far he’s come.
Ask Curtiss why he loves running, and expect a long answer. Because while some things are different now, others remain the same.